Deadlines to relocate, raise money weigh on Pacifica stations

By Mike Janssen

The Pacifica radio network rarely enjoys a drama-free moment, but with two of its five stations on a tight schedule to find new studios, tensions among network leaders and local volunteers are even higher than usual.

Last week Summer Reese, interim executive director of Pacifica, took a redeye from the West Coast, where Pacifica is headquartered, to appear in court in Washington, D.C. The landlord of WPFW, Pacifica’s Washington station, is selling the building that houses the station’s studios to a developer who has plans for a new hotel on the site and needs WPFW to move out of the way.

Reese and WPFW leaders have been searching for a new location for months, but the site on which the station had already paid rent has prompted a backlash among station volunteers: The studios are located outside the District of Columbia and shared with a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications. Some WPFW volunteers have gone to court to block that move, and Reese is sympathetic to their cause.

Meanwhile, Pacifica’s debt-burdened New York station, WBAI, is also on the hunt for a new home and faces an equally pressing deadline to find one.

At the time of WPFW’s April 23 hearing in landlord-tenant court, station leaders were still looking at possible locations while also preparing for a crucial May fund drive. Reese told Judge Michael Rankin that the drive would end May 25. But minutes later, WPFW General Manager John Hughes approached the bench and said the drive would in fact end June 6. Hughes’ clarification in the courtroom contradicted information that he had shared with Reese just a day before, the Pacifica director later told Current.

“You’re in a bit of a mess,” said Rankin, before granting a judgment in favor of WPFW’s landlord. The judge gave the station a month of breathing room by delaying execution of the order until May 25.

Pacifica stations sell no underwriting and depend heavily on listener donations to get by, making WPFW’s need to raise money next month even more acute. “It is extremely difficult to do anything involving phone lines in a hurry,” Reese told Current in a coffee-shop interview after her court appearance. Mostly ignoring her egg-and-cheese croissant, she talked about Pacifica’s hardships with more energy than might be expected from someone running on three hours of sleep.

“Being able to stay in this building long enough to do our fund drive . . . is going to be really important in terms of the stability of the station,” she said.

WPFW’s search for a new location has brought additional headaches. Its volunteer hosts were outraged to learn that Reese and Hughes had found a potential home for the station in the Silver Spring, Md., studios of Total Traffic Network, a subsidiary of Clear Channel. They objected to the idea of doing business with the corporate megabroadcaster and to the station moving outside of city limits.

Several hosts filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Reese, Hughes and others, which would have blocked the move. “Having WPFW beholden in a tenancy to Clear Channel is repugnant to the mission of Pacifica and WPFW and threatens the financial wellbeing, mission, and existence of the station,” they alleged. The motion said that Hughes had already paid a month’s rent of $11,565 to Clear Channel and committed a $100,000 liability of deposit of security.

A judge dismissed the motion, but another motion for preliminary injunction is still pending.

Though Reese has signed the lease on behalf of Pacifica, Clear Channel has yet to approve it, she said. Pacifica is now trying to back out of the agreement. Reese said she agreed to the lease only after WPFW’s local representatives told her that the site was the only viable option, a claim she now doubts and is trying to substantiate.

“I presented to them all my misgivings about the space,” she told Current. The location lacks sufficient space for community meetings or pledge drives, she said, and the lease’s eight-year term with no exit clause would hamper efforts to buy a building, an eventual goal for the station.

Meanwhile, Reese and a consultant hired by Pacifica have been scouting short-term locations for WPFW’s relocation.

WBAI, Pacifica’s New York station, faces similar challenges. Now sharing temporary studios with WHCR at the City College of New York, WBAI must move next month, and it still owes money to its previous landlord. It was forced out of its former home by Hurricane Sandy.

WBAI is also in debt to the Empire State Building, from which it leases space for its antenna. In March it scrambled to raise enough money from listeners to pay off $250,000 in overdue rent, and it will need to make additional payments in coming months.

“It’s going to be a long haul” until the station is on solid financial footing, Reese said.

The network’s other three stations — in Houston, Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles — are at least shored up in stable locations, but in Reese’s view, substantial problems riddle Pacifica network-wide. All of the stations are underperforming in listenership, considering the size of their markets and the strengths of their powerful signals. Programming on all stations needs improvement, she says, but such concerns might have to take a backseat for the time being.

“My first goal is to keep us on the air,” she said. “And you have to be somewhere to do that.”

This article was first published in Current, April 29, 2013.
Correction: This article has been corrected. An earlier version misstated that the new hotel on WPFW’s former site will be a Marriott hotel. Marriott is no longer involved in the project’s development.
Update: On April 30, after this news article appeared in the print edition of Current, Pacifica Director Summer Reese announced that the plan to move WPFW to Silver Spring “is no longer being considered.” A new location “within the DC area” is yet to be determined, Reese said in the statement. WPFW Local Station Board member Yves Pointe du-Jour told the Washington City Paper that the landlord of the Silver Spring building — not Pacifica — had backed out of the deal.
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